News Analysis: U.S. Using Telephone Diplomacy to Try to Salvage Peace Process

U.S.-Israeli peace diplomacy appears to be proceeding on two levels: one highly visible to the news media, the other behind the scenes via telephone.

At the visible end of the spectrum, stalemate prevails, But operating behind the scenes over the weekend was a flurry of telephone conversations between the principals that indicates both sides are very anxious to keep the process alive.

Visibly, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir appeared unmoved by reports from Washington that Secretary of State James Baker may wash his hands of Middle East peace-making efforts unless some progress occurs soon.

Israel will not conduct its policy “with a stopwatch” was the tart response such reports elicited from circles close to Shamir.

But the prime minister’s aides firmly denied a report that Shamir would consider postponing his visit to the United States next month because it might become the focus of American demands for Israeli concessions.

Shamir, they said, was planning to go ahead as scheduled. In fact, he expects that his Nov. 15 meeting with President Bush at the White House will settle whatever differences the trans-Atlantic phone calls fail to bridge.

WARNING FROM THE STATE DEPARTMENT

Yet the Bush administration publicly seems to be calling on Israel’s coalition government to end its political infighting so that the peace process can advance.

“If the parties do not have the will to overcome their political constraints, we cannot produce progress by ourselves,” State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Friday in Washington.

Although Tutwiler has made such statements before, the reference to “political constraints” was new. She denied that it was aimed specifically at Israel.

But the comment was made against the background of sharp divisions between Likud and Labor on how to proceed with Shamir’s initiative, and in the aftermath of Shamir’s scathing criticism of U.S. mediation efforts last week.

The Shamir remarks have come to be seen as an attempt to reassure his hard-line Likud colleagues. At the same time, Shamir appears to be reassuring the Americans that he is genuinely committed to advancing the peace process.

Tutwiler said Baker telephoned Shamir on Thursday after receiving a letter from the prime minister that, in Tutwiler’s words, “applauds our efforts and encourages us to keep them up.”

Baker also spoke Friday by telephone with the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers, Moshe Arens and Esmat Abdel Meguid.

Tutwiler would give no details of those conversations Friday, though she implied they were part of Baker’s efforts to meet Israeli and Egyptian concerns over his “five points” aimed at holding an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in Cairo.

Paradoxically, although Baker’s “five points” deliberately have not been disclosed in Washington, the Israeli news media seem comfortably familiar with them.

KNESSET PLANS FULL DEBATE

Shamir objects vehemently to at least two of the points.

According to reports here, he is opposed to the proposed consultations between Egypt and the Palestinians over the composition of the Palestinian delegation for talks with Israel. Such consultations, he believes, would give the Palestine Liberation Organization an indirect role.

Shamir also is said to want Baker to specify that the only admissable item on the agenda of the proposed Israeli-Palestinian talks will be the modalities of the Palestinian elections he proposes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Baker, for his part, reportedly has declined to make either of these amendments to his five-point paper. But he is willing to assuage Israel’s concerns on these points by means of an accompanying letter to the Jerusalem government, reports here say.

The Americans have insisted repeatedly they are not trying to bring the PLO into the process through the back door.

“We have not asked, nor are we asking, the Israelis to negotiate with the PLO,” Tutwiler said at the State Department briefing Friday.

But she denied that any new assurances were given to the Israelis. An Israeli newspaper report that the United States has given Israel a guarantee that it will not be asked to negotiate with the PLO was “not accurate,” she said.

Shamir, meanwhile, blocked attempts by some ministers to raise diplomatic issues at the weekly meeting of the full Cabinet on Sunday.

AGUDAH COULD QUIT COALITION

Those matters are dealt with by a forum of the four ranking coalition ministers Shamir and Arens for Likud, and Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor Party.

Formal decisions are made by the 12-member Inner Cabinet, consisting of six Likud and six Labor ministers.

But while the government is playing the matter close to the vest, the Knesset plans to air the diplomatic linens with a full-scale debate on Tuesday.

The government will have to respond to three no-confidence motions introduced by the Hadash Communist Party, the Citizens Rights Movement and the Center-Shinui Movement.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Likud-Labor coalition is believed to hinge on the ultimate outcome of the diplomatic activity.

So far, Labor has been amenable to American and Egyptian proposals, while the Likud bloc is adamantly opposed. Unless there is a change, pundits say Labor will break with Likud after Shamir’s American trip next month.

A movement is also afoot in the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party to drop out of the coalition. Some insiders here believe the Agudah is ripe to join a narrow government headed by Labor.

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY